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Are you an ostrich or a meerkat?

When it comes to facing facts, do you bury your head or become obsessed?

Behavioural economists continue to unearth interesting observations about human attributes that have direct impact on performance. For example, they have discovered that people who suffer from the ‘ostrich effect’ regularly monitor activity or progress while things are going well, but prefer to bury their heads when things go badly. They consciously avoid valuable information and the potential need for action.

On the other hand, some (the meerkats) become obsessed and check the data with alarming freqency.

For those who observe the effectiveness of contract management, both behaviors are perhaps familiar. Certainly the ostrich effect helps us understaand why poor performance can often pass unchallenged until it suddenly turns into a crisis and dispute. Once again, it points to the fact that human behavior underlies so many problems; machines that are programmed to monitor performance show no such traits or emotions – they just react according to their programming.

But the problems do not stop there. When forced to confront an issue, you might hope that people would gather the facts and then take a balanced view to support subsequent action. However, they don’t. Researchers discovered that, far from appreciating and evaluating opposing viewpoints, many people mine the information for ways to support their existing beliefs. In other words, if you take the view that all suppliers or all customers lack integrity, you will select only the data that supports that belief.

So in summary, we avoid unpleasant information even when it is to our benefit to deal with it and, when forced to confront a situation, we seek the information that supports our preconceptions.

It’s actually a wonder that so many contracts succeed!

Equipping for the future: from know-how to judgment

‘Let’s restore learning to the days when it taught practical skills and knowledge.’

That was the message I received last week from an acquaintance, who forwarded a rather amusing test paper, contrasting how the nature of math questions has changed over the last 60 years. It started with the following:

“A logger sells a truckload of lumber for $100. His cost of production is 4/5 of the price. What is his profit?”

Over the years, the problem becomes steadily simpler so that by 1996 it requires students to successfully underline the number 20. By 2016, the question has altered fundamentally:

“A logger cuts down a forest, caring nothing for the habitat of animals or the preservation of our woodlands. He does this so that he can make a profit of $20. What do you think of this way of making a living?”

At first, I had some sympathy with his comment. It seemed quite reasonable to expect children to learn basic mathematical skills, rather than abstract and, in this example, politicised thinking. But as I reflected, I realised how wrong I was to think that way – and how right the test is to move education in the direction it has.

Back in 1956, when the first test question on the sample paper was posed, there was no automation. Mental arithmetic was a fundamental requirement. It was essential to navigate through everyday life. Knowledge workers were largely a thing of the future because most work was manual.

Today’s children live with knowledge at their fingertips. If they want to discover a percentage, or the meaning of profit, they look it up on their phone or laptop. What they increasingly need in order to flourish in a networked world is empathy and judgment – two things that machines cannot yet provide.

So while I may disagree with the way the 2016 question is written, the fact that an answer demands empathy, analysis and judgment is fully reflective of the skills and competencies that young people now need.

This is a salutary lesson for all of us as we think about the elements of our knowledge and work activities that remain relevant in a machine-driven age. While commercial judgment is key and empathy and analysis are critical, traditional management of repetitive or memory-based tasks and processes will soon be consigned to being something we did in the past.


Walls or bridges

This week saw the launch in Germany of a new Masters program in International Contract & Commercial Management. IACCM led the first two days, providing operational context and strategic direction.

As a concluding exercise, students were asked to develop presentations on the role that contract and commercial management functions will fulfil five years from now. One student summed it up brilliantly when he simply stated: ‘We will have shifted from building walls to building bridges’.

His point, of course, is that the contracting process today is too often focused on protecting narrow, siloed interests, rather than encouraging collaboration, transparency and agile movement. Protectionism is the opposite of free and open trade and always damages economic wealth. That is certainly the case with many contracts today. They are structured and worded in a way that undermines intent and threatens performance.

These students came from diverse industries and educational backgrounds, yet they were united in the challenge of managing uncertainty, dealing with change, defining outcomes and goals. They rapidly appreciated the need for contracts to assist in addressing these key issues, which means it must operate as a communication tool across stakeholders and provide mechanisms to deal with altered circumstances. Through that approach, a contract links parties and supports free movement of data and information, thereby ‘bridging gaps’ rather than creating walls to climb.


Contracts – who needs them!

As we all know, a contract only has real purpose when things go wrong. That’s why organizations engage in a battle over whose form will prevail and it is why people become so frustrated when reaching agreement causes delay.

Attitudes haven’t changed all that much since research was undertaken by legal scholar Stewart Macaulay in 1963 and subsequently updated in 2013 by Professor Gillian Hadfield. In fact, those studies even question the relevance of a contract when things go wrong: “Written contracts (are) often highly standardized documents that (are) largely confined to the drawer once drafted by the legal department and then rarely consulted to resolve disputes”.

Macaulay and Hadfield were examining the attitiudes of business executives. But behind these superficial findings, they discovered that this attitude only applied to transactions that were relatively predictable and in themselves considered ‘low risk’ – in other words, the sale and acquisition of what today we might term ‘commodities’. As soon as performance becomes less predictable – for example, because of potential changes over time, uncertainty over requirements or capabilities, potential confusion over ownership or an expectation of innovation – ‘contracting’ becomes much more significant. Those executives not only started to care more about legal implications, they especially  appreciated a need to “coordinate beliefs about what constitutes a breach of a highly ambiguous set of obligations” and to identify shared approaches and strategies that induce compliance and performance.

These concepts are of major importance because they can help us realize far more value from our trading relationships and they indicate the nature of the changes we need to make, especially in the approach to procurement.

On one level, it might be argued that procurement strategies which seek to break transactions into separate ‘commodity’ elements are really smart. They simplify acquisition and reduce the relevance of the contract, making it consistent with the use of ‘standardized documents’ that require little understanding of contract terms or behavioral economics. This turns the act of procurement into a process which often operates to avoid negotiation, not to support it.

In an era when most acquisitions were for standardized goods, there was a logic to this approach. Where it  falls down is in the acquisition of more complicated items, such as IT systems or software, where requirements and performance are harder to define. It becomes especially problematic when purchasing long-term services, which by their nature are intangible and require far greater definition and management.

Today, while commodity purchasing remains a high volume of activity, the majority of business spend has moved from goods to services. We are buying performance, outcomes and sustainable relationships. In many organizations, Procurement skills and processes simply have not kept pace. They remain focused on driving down the price of commodities when they should instead be focused on working with suppliers and supply networks “to identify shared approaches and strategies that induce compliance and performance”.  The discipline provided by contracts and the contracting process is fundamental to achieving this shift.

But the need for change goes beyond the Procurement function. It requires a new business attitude and a recognition that better performance depends upon integration across entire relationship networks. In other words, businesses need to start with an appreciation of the commitments they make to the market and they must flow those commitments (and updates to them) through the organization and into their supply agreements. Right now, there are multiple disconnects. Many functions operate as silos with limited appreciation of customers or markets. There is rarely adequate connection between those who form contracts with customers and those who are contracting with suppliers. Relatively few organizations see a need for sell-side and buy-side resources to co-locate, to use the same systems or to undergo similar training and to have complementary goals and objectives.

IACCM research consistently shows that these divisions in organizational structure cause substantial value and performance loss. There are compelling arguments to create an integrated function that supports ‘trading relationship capability’. But failing that, it would at the very least be smart to create an internal environment where those who develop and negotiate contracts – buy-side and sell-side – can speak to each other in the same language and have a common understanding of their role and methods.


Contract Management Automation: A Missed Opportunity

Organizations are struggling to drive adoption of their contract management systems and, for many, integration with other systems is proving problematic. As a result, the level of satisfaction with current systems is low, with a rating of just 4.2 out of 10.

This is among the early findings from an IACCM survey on the use and performance of contract management technology.

Although many systems offer a wide variety of functions, the actual functionality achieved is generally limited – for most, it is the repository functions of accessing and having visibility into agreements that is the primary benefit. Almost half are using the system as a store for standard terms and term options, including templates, and around 40% support review and approval. Less than one third are able to demonstrate an ROI from their investment.

Clearly these are not compelling statistics. Our research suggests that the problems are not necessarily with the software. While some systems are not performing well, the problems often arise because:

  • Organizations have not adequately considered their requirements
  • Organizations have not considered opportunities to streamline their process
  • Organizations have not focused on user needs and adoption

As a result, the primary users are within legal or contract management functions and there is no indication that most existing implementations will gain wider enterprise adoption. Many have already replaced systems, some several times, and almost half plan to do so again.

Most survey respondents are conscious of new technology developments – for example Artificial Intelligence, cognitive systems – that will substantially impact contract management, but more than two thirds have limited understanding of what that impact will be. Overall, less than 10% have implemented digital systems to streamline their contracts; more than 50% have no current plans for digitization.

In summary, most organizations appear to be struggling in their efforts to automate the contracting process. This is most likely because in many of them, contracting is still not viewed as an integrated process, but rather as somewhat disconnected steps, often with unclear ownership and responsibility. That is clearly not the fault of the software providers; it indicates the broader problem that businesses are still failing to get to grips with the opportunities that come from improved contracting and better performance from their trading relationships.

To participate in the IACCM survey and receive a copy of the final report, please visit



Why don’t they understand?

In a recent poll, 82% of contract and commercial managers said that their biggest challenge is ‘providing measurable business value’. While a similar percentage say that they enjoy their work, many are frustrated that it isn’t better understood or appreciated.

So what’s the problem?

It’s the fact that most of us can’t clearly describe why our work is important. We may talk about managing risks, but what risks and whose risks? When did they last occur? What are we doing to stop them? Some of us may suggest we ensure overall business integrity and compliance – which to others sounds an awful lot like bureaucracy and inflexibility. Of course there is always the claim that we improve or safeguard margins, either through revenue protection or via savings, which is probably true but often hard to illustrate.

So the real challenge is that contracts and commercial groups frequently lack a clear sense of mission. They often undertake highly diverse activities, ‘fixing things’ as they arise. While individually these activities may be important, it is almost impossible to describe cumulatively what value they have brought. And as we discover when we undertake IACCM’s capability assessments, contracts and commercial groups are generally not well aligned to corporate goals and strategic priorities.

There are in fact several issues that undermine the way contract and commercial managers are perceived. One is the lack of consistency in skills and standards. Practitioners come from a variety of backgrounds and tend to bring those backgrounds with them. In other words, their prior job or professional training influences the way they see their role. On one level, this diversity can bring strength to a commercial function; but it also brings the danger of inconsistency, confusing to users of the service.

Another factor is the absence of well-established tools or methods. Investment in contract and commercial capabilities tends to be limited and this results in variable approaches in the delivery of services, often again dependent on the individual practitioner. 55% feel that ‘gaining status and recognition’ is a problem and, without this, it is unlikely that investment will increase.

The third factor is the overall lack of meaningful data. Right now, the best way of gaining recognition is when there are major losses or exposures from poor contracts or commercial decisions. To the extent data exists, it is often at a transactional level or of little real meaning in terms of demonstrating contribution. For example, efficiency measures such as number of contracts handled or benchmarks of headcount tell us nothing about quality or value, nor do ‘estimates’ of negotiated savings or revenue gains at the point of contract signature.

Without a clear and easily described sense of purpose, it is almost impossible to develop a coherent approach to what we do or how we do it. And to excite people about our value, we must focus on driving improvements, to tackling the challenges of today, not those of the past. For example, are we visibly developing better contracting models that assist in managing market uncertainty? Are we actively promoting digitization of our contracting process to streamline and simplify getting to agreement? Are we proactive in tackling common sources of tension or value erosion in the negotiation and performance of our contracts? Are we seen as innovators and a source of new ideas, or as guardians of outdated rules and procedures that others see as barriers to doing their job?

Unless we are clear why we are doing something, it is impossible to check that what we do is actually of value to anyone.

So might a mission statement for contract and commercial management be something like: “We provide you with the contracts and commercial advice that ensure competitive success”.

What ideas do you have? What is the best mission statement for contract and commercial management that you have seen?


The accidental contract manager

If you are involved in contract or commercial management, is it by design, or by accident? And what about your colleagues?

An increasingly lively topic of discussion is just how badly equipped most organizations are when it comes to managing their contracts. Most have hundreds, even thousands, of ‘accidental contract managers’ – people who stumbled into the role from a variety of backgrounds, who then received training (if any) while ‘on the job’ and who work full time or part time creating, negotiating and managing contracts.

On one level, you can hail them as often unsung heroes – the people who manage risks and opportunities, who deliver revenue and savings. Each day. Every day. Often with little acknowledegment.

On another level, just imagine how much more they could achieve if they had structure, tools and systems, regular support and clear goals. We know the answer, of course, because IACCM research has so clearly pointed to the remarkable financial impact sof poor contract management. Lost revenue, missed savings, failure to control or to deliver improvement.

How is it that executives can be quite so oblivious to these weaknesses? Why do they allow such critical assets (their contracts) to be managed in such a haphazard fashion? The answer, of course, is that they generally don’t realize the scale of financial impact it is having, because no one has told them. And no one tells them because either they don’t know, or they think they can’t raise the subject without absolute evidence.

Slowly but surely, organizations are awakening to the issues and the opportunity. Companies like Vodafone, Ericsson and BT from the telecoms sector; ConocoPhillips and Shell from oil and gas; Meggitt from aerospace, Danske Bank from financial services, Atos and CapGemini from outsourcing and IT services and the UK Government from the public sector ….. these are just some of the organizations presenting at the IACCM Europe conference this year, sharing their approach to improvement and the success they are seeing.

The days of the accidental contract manager are numbered. Market pressures are demanding an era of increased professionalism and competence. Be among those who understand the difference and equip yourself to lead. Find out more by joining the established and aspiring leaders at the IACCM Europe conference in Dublin, May 8th-10th.

Discover contract excellence, by design.